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A little less than two years ago, Father Malcolm Guite hosted a series of lectures on the Inklings. In his first, lecture, he dealt with the Inklings as a group, and with their common characteristics as thinkers and as writers. Father Malcolm argued that the Oxford Inklings, among whom he included CS Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, and John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, were more cohesive and presented a more common front against modernism, nihilism, and reductionism that than they are generally credited for doing. Most critics view the group as a subset of the personal friends of CS Lewis who shared a reactionary frame of mind and who were uncommonly fond of fables and stories. Indeed, if Tolkien had not singlehandedly created a market for epic and heroic fantasy, it is possible that the whole group would have been written off as a literary curiosity and quickly forgotten.
After introducing the Inklings as a group, Father Malcolm discusses each of them in turn; first CS Lewis, whose spiritual biography Father Malcolm presents as a healing of that great divide which was just beginning to open in lewis’ day between what was true, that which could be verified by Science [always capitalized], and that which Mattered, which was all of these myths and stories that moved the soul so deeply but which were of no value for discerning the truth. From Lewis, Father Malcolm proceeds to a discussion of one of Lewis’ earliest and closest friends, Owen Barfield. Barfield is hard to discuss in Christian terms; he comes with a lot of Anthroposophic baggage, but Father Malcolm does a first-rate job in addressing Barfield’s idiosyncrasies in a way that can help the average Christian to begin to process them. The Barfield lecture comes with an extra surprise; Barfield’s grandson, namesake, and literary executor Owen A. Barfield joins Father Malcolm to discuss the reprinting of his grandfather’s imaginative works, of which there were a lot more than saw publication in his lifetime.
Father Malcolm then moves on to a discussion of Charles Williams, and his exegesis of Williams’ biography and the class-related handicaps with which Williams struggled all his life were particularly illuminating to this American. Father Malcolm treats Williams’ poetry as central to any understanding of Williams’ thinking, which is something that Williams himself would have wanted. Charles Williams’ poetry gets overlooked because it is difficult. I don’t think Father Malcolm addresses this issue clearly, but those who find his criticism, his theological writing, and his hermetic novels difficult because of his private vocabulary are bound to find his poetry almost inaccessible. I know I do. However, Father Malcolm points out that Williams, out of all the Inklings, is a better place to start than any of the others for a criticism of our common economic life, and this last five minutes of the Williams lecture are highly recommended because of this.
Ending with Tolkien, Father Malcolm saves the most famous of the Inklings for the last. Surprisingly, he doesn’t spend a lot of time on the great trilogy, but discusses a lot of Tolkien’s attitudes towards his own work. He reads Tolkien’s poem Mythopoeia for a glimpse into what Tolkien understood himself as doing; subcreating in the image and after the fashion of the great Creator. Then Father Malcolm investigates a lot of Tolkien’s source material; the Norse myths, the Anglo-Saxon literature with which Tolkien as a professor of Anglo-Saxon was intimately familiar. The best line in Father Malcolm’s discourse comes towards the middle; ‘you have this one remarkable individual replacing an entire race as a creator of mythological material’, which of course, is precisely what Tolkien was and did.
It would be jejune for me to think I could fault Father Malcolm for what he failed to cover in this wonderful lectures. If the good father is amenable to adding a second series [he has already moved on to Blake, a poet with whom I badly need to acquaint myself], he may wish to discuss Tolkien fandom, Charles Williams’ concept of co-inherence and the perichoreisis of the Holy Trinity, Owen Barfield’s links to Goethe and others of the the German Romantic Naturphilosophie, and Lewis’ literary criticism, especially The Allegory Of Love and The Discarded Image.
Links to the podcasts are hosted on this blog. More people need to hear them. The first lecture is here. Press on the Magic card below to download the corresponding lecture on that Inkling. There were some issues with the volume which I addressed in reposting them.
Full size Magic The Gathering cards:
A small group of friends, Reformed Christians, in the unlikely location of Central Florida, have initiated a small course for high schools and college students. They teach cultural criticism, classical languages, philosophy, and logic to young people. I would love to participate in their Film Nights, since as a rule they show better films than those playing at the local cineplex.
The Reformed are well-suited to this sort of cultural analysis, since the argument could be made that they created North Atlantic/Anglo-American culture and have only just had the controls wrested from their grasp in the last few decades by their successors and supplanters the social democrats.
Reviewing their list of offerings I was surprised to see that, although JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis figure prominently in their iconography, and in the lists of favorite books of the faculty, they don’t appear to have a literature course dedicated specifically to the Inklings and their works. Ruminating on this, I decided to see if I could construct a course outline for their students:
AN INTRODUCTION TO THE INKLINGS
Premodernism and Romanticism in Literature and Theology
I. The Inklings As Romantics and Counter-Revolutionaries It is important to place Tolkien, Lewis, Williams and Barfield in their milieu. In these days of blockbuster films based upon their imaginary works, it is hard to imagine how out-of-step the Inklings were in the literary world of wartime and post-war Britain. Realism and Modernism dominated both the best-seller charts and the academic departments. When JRR Tolkien submitted The Lord Of The Rings to Allen & Unwin for publications, they feared they wouldn’t be able to sell 1500 copies.
This portion of the course would focus on predecessors to the Inklings; the great Romantic poets Wordsworth and Byron, George Macdonald, Lord Dunsany, and E.R. Eddison. readings would include, but not be limited to, CS Lewis’ The Pilgrim’s Regress and The Discarded Image, Owen Barfield’s Romanticism Come Of Age, and Dorothy L. Sayers’s essay “Dante and Charles Williams”.
II. The Inklings As World-Builders This module would serve as an introduction to mythopoeia and mythopoetic literature. Now that Narnia and Middle-Earth are household words, it can be productive to study the metaphysics of the invented worlds of Lewis and Tolkien and contrast them with non-Christian or anti-Christian underpinnings of Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea, Stephen King’s Mid-World, or China Mieville’s New Crobuzon.
Although these secondary worlds are as richly woven and as thoroughly imagined as Lewis’ or Tolkien’s , they don’t rings as true as either Narnia or Middle Earth, which were constructed as worlds congruent with the worship of the Holy Trinity, explicitly in Narnia’s case and implicitly in the case of Middle-Earth. Why would some metaphysics, the metaphysics of creation by a Tri-personal God, be superior for the construction of secondary worlds than metaphysics based on Taoism (which explains the obsession with “balance” in modern imaginative works as varied as Star Wars or Avatar: The Last Airbender), or on chance and necessity, or on dialectic?
III. The Inklings as Romantic Theologians It should be obvious that Tolkien, Lewis, and Williams were not systematic theologians. Their relation of the body of their works to elaborated Christian dogma were informal and even tenuous. The jury is still out as to whether Owen Barfield is even an orthodox Christian despite his public baptism in his sixties, and Charles Williams’ Christian thought is impenetrable to most interpreters.
Nevertheless, the Inklings were instrumental in rehabilitating that most human of faculties, the much-maligned imagination, and especially Barfield and Williams made the observation that the failure of the Church in their day was not a failure of faith but a failure of imagination.
In the last week, I have been following an interesting exchange between David Theroux and my loyal friend Steven Hayes about the economic thought of CS Lewis. It appears Paul, whom I suspect of being a right-leaning American Catholic suspicious of governmental interference, found a kindred spirit in Lewis, who was certainly no fan of political ideologies.
Steve, a left-leaning South African with whom I share a concern that the benefits of “freedom” in the market sense have been inappropriately distributed, and with whom I share at least the apprehension that governmental coercion may be the only weapon available to whinge the behemoths currently dominating the geopolitical environment, responded saying that he felt that Lewis would not have allowed himself to be aligned with American Libertarianism, which is an ideology that wishes to extend to all Americans the benefits of that freedom from governmental restraint currently enjoyed by those who can afford seats at $10,000 a plate fundraising dinners.
Mr. Theroux offered a rebuttal to Steve, which Steve graciously forwarded to me in a mailing list, is unavailable for linking, although I hope to remedy that shortly.
I think that the whole problem of trying to pigeonhole Lewis’ politics and/or economic theorems [and, let us confess, all politics appears to have reduced to economics in our darkening era] is that Lewis’ thinking along operated primarily on a pre-Enlightenment, pre-“Victorious Analysis” basis.
I don’t know anything about Natural Law theory, except that it seems to be often on the lips of a certain type of Catholic. I am assuming that Natural Law is something akin to what Lewis dealt with when he introduced the concept of the “Tao” in ‘The Abolition Of Man’, so if I make mistakes in understanding the ideas begind Natural law, please bear with me. I have to admit that the whole idea of ‘law’ leaves me a bit cold, whichever phrase it is embedded in; “Natural Law”, “the Law of Historical Necessity”, “the Law of the Marketplace”.
I would like to bring the thought of another of the circle of Lewis’ friends, Owen Barfield, to play upon the issue of economic thought:
“[Francis] Bacon… was at least among the first to draw the analogy in English. so that in the history of thought, we have a here a pretty definite point – round about the beginning of the 17th century – at which the concept ‘laws of nature’ first begins to reveal itself as working in human minds.”
Barfield goes to to explain that the idea of Law, from the time of Bacon on, displaced the older idea of Form as a metaphor of “thinking Nature”. The older idea of Form, which was useful in explaining ‘natura naturans’, Barfield maintains, were the “memory of those elements which the best Greek thinking could still apprehend in its time as living Beings” was usurped by the menta habit of thinking of Laws, which dealt with ‘natura naturata’, as a static thing “which dealt with the rules that govern the changes which occur in the sense-perceptible part of nature.”
This helps me to distinguish the economic thinking of Lewis, and his companion Tolkien from the algorithmic thinking about The Market© that is so ubiquitious in our day. The Algorithm arose in the Seventeenth Century as a way of thinking and swept all before it. The United States, it is sometimes helpful for me to remember, is not a Nation based on ties of race, religion, or culture, but literally an Algorithmic state, based not on centuries of precedent and custom, but on ABORSGSIARTATBWTAADR (A Bunch Of Really Smart Guys Sitting In A Room Thinking About The Best Way To Achieve A Desired Result). And the temptation is, when confronted by undesireable results proceeding from the execution of the Algorithm, is to reach for the levers and tweak it until it produces the desired results.
The result of the triumph of the Algorithm has been an undeniable increase in the levels of comfort for those who benefit from its application, especially for those close to the levers and those who directly support them. Indeed, the limited liablity corporation and the ersatz personhood rendered to it by legal fiat represents kind of an Incarnation for this Algorithm. The pronouncements of those in charge of these entities indicate there is a kind of reverse-theosis underway in them that strips them of any concern that cannot be quantified by this Algorithm.
In contrast, Lewis champions a kind of a pre-Algorithmic ordering of society, where The Market© digests other concerns besides the merely economic. Novelist Gene Wolfe in a masterful essay on Tolkien says this in a way I can only marvel at:
“Philology led him to the study of the largely illiterate societies of Northern Europe between the fall of Rome and the beginning of the true Middle Ages (roughly AD 400 to 1000). There he found a quality — let us call it Folk Law — that has almost disappeared from his world and ours. It is the neighbour-love and settled customary goodness of the Shire. Frodo is “rich” in comparison to Sam, though no dragon would call Frodo rich; Sam is poor in comparison to Frodo, though Sam is far richer than Gollum, who has been devoured by the tyranny and corruption of the One Ring. Frodo does not despise Sam for his poverty, he employs him; and Sam does not detest Frodo for his wealth, but is grateful for the job. Most central of all, the difference in their positions does not prevent their friendship. And in the end, poor Sam rises in the estimation of the Shire because of his association with Frodo, and rich Frodo sacrifices himself for the good of all the Sams.”
“Sam Rayburn, a politician of vast experience, once said that all legislation is special-interest legislation. Of our nation, and of the 20th century, that is unquestionably true; but it need not be. We have — but do not need — a pestilent swarm of exceedingly clever persons who call themselves public servants when everything about them and us proclaims that they are in fact our masters. They make laws (and regulations and judicial decisions that have the force of laws) faster and more assiduously than any factory in the world makes chains; and they lay them on us.”
It need not be so. We might have a society in which the laws were few and just, simple, permanent, and familiar to everyone — a society in which everyone stood shoulder-to-shoulder because everyone lived by the same changeless rules, and everyone knew what those rules were. When we had it, we would also have a society in which the lack of wealth was not reason for resentment but a spur to ambition, and in which wealth was not a cause for self-indulgence but a call to service. We had it once, and some time in this third millennium we shall have it again; and if we forget to thank John Ronald Reuel Tolkien for it when we get it, we will already have begun the slow and not always unpleasant return to Mordor.”
Please note that the essay by Mr. Wolfe is copyrighted, and the owner of the website from which I obtained the above fragment paid Mr. Wolfe for the privilege of publishing the essay in its entirety. Thank you, Mr. Robertson, for making this available publicly.
Unfortunately, I do not believe that the way back is the way forward. Nostalgia for Holy Rus or the Anglo-Saxon Thengs or even the Scotland of David Ricardo will not assist us in our current extreme. We live in a time where children now consider it a judicious investment to bring a firearm to school, but I do not want to return to a time when such schooling was available to very few, if at all.
What Barfield indicates is that we need to have a different way of thinking;
“The economic life is today the real bond of the civilised world/ The world is not held together by political or religious harmony, but by economic interdependence; and here again is the same antithesis. Economic theory is bound hand and foot by the static, abstract (algorithmic) characte of modern thought. On the one hand, everything to with industry and the possibility of substituting human labor by machinery, or at very least standardizing it into a series of repetitive motions, has reached an unexampled pitch of perfection.”
“But when it is the question of distributing this potential wealth, when it is demanded of us that we think in terms of flow and rate-of-flow, in otherwords that we think in terms of the system as a whole, we cannot even rise to it. The result is that all our ‘labour-saving’ machinery produces not leisure but its ghastly caricature unemployment while the world sits helplessly watching the steady growth within itself of a malignant tumor of social discontent. this incereaasingly rancourous discontent is fed above all things by a cramping penury, a shortage of the means of livelihood which arises not out the realities of nature, but out of abstract, inelastic thoughts about money.”
Now, I will be the first to admit that I am clueless about the kind of thinking Barfield says we require at this juncture. Whether it is holistic rather than reductionistic I cannot penetrate at this time. If it holistic, it runs the risk of requiring somebody to know a system extensively before saying anything about it, and every time I head down that path, I find myself thinking algorithmically about non-algorithmic thought, and thus get myself all balled up in knots.
The closest I have gotten is, maybe, when meditating in a grove of trees about photosynthesis, I entertained a kind of a pre-sentiment that the trees “wanted” to trap the sunlight and turn it into useable energy, not only for themselves, but for all the biosphere, and if I could just ‘learn their language’, as it were, I could find a way to cooperate with the trees and help them do this.
I think another of the neglected Inklings, Charles Williams, with his concepts of Co-Inherence and Webs of Exchange, lends himself to an economic interpretation. Certainly Williams, as a lifelong City dweller, would have a different outlook than the bucolic Lewis or Tolkien. Certainly, a good case could be made for there being different Webs of Exchange; the Chemical, the Biological, the Semantic, the Anthro-Economic which exists over and above the others and which currently is returning evil for good.
For the world is changing: I feel it in the water, I feel it in the earth, and I smell it in the air.
Treebeard – from The Two Towers; presciently used as an introduction to the Extended Edition DVD of The Fellowship of the Ring
I am sorry I have been so remiss in working on this blog this year. The things I want to say I struggle to find among kindred minds the vocabulary to express. With the infosphere so full of disheartening political and economic news, the signal-to-noise ratio remains appallingly low. Nobody within earshot of me seems to be saying anything useful or encouraging except for the Orthodox, some of the better Catholics, Wendell Berry, the Scylding, and, surprisingly, some granola-crunching New Agers.
Oh yes, Tim Enloe is doing some important work digesting primary sources which can act as signposts especially to those whose interest is in the development of what can only be called the Mind of the West.
I can only hope my problem isn’t selective hearing on my part; what the Reformed refer to as “judicial hardening”.
One of the reasons I had for reading Owen Barfield was the hope that he would have:cleared a path for me through the intellectual thicket in which I currently find myself The Western world in general, and the United States of America in particular, appears to be approaching an impasse to which no easy solution presents itself. There is a dislocation on the horizon that will be certainly uncomfortable, probably grueling, and possibly violent. If the current “common sense” consensus prevails, we in the USA and aligned countries will find ourselves on an unsustainable trajectory where we are competing with the rest of the world for a dwindling amount of resources. By the current “common sense” consensus, I mean the pragmatic, objectivizing, particularizing, quantifying, and now digitizing impulse that produced both the Scientific and the Commercial revolutions, and led to us organizing ourselves into, and relating to each other primarily through the mediation of, corporations that act as vast Turing devices acting only for the quantification and increase of Capital, now expressed primarily as a series of 1s and 0s on a digital medium somewhere.
Recently , I read an interesting online essay by Jim Davis, Globalization, Romanticism, and Owen Barfield. Even though Mr. Davis’ presuppositions and concerns are not my own, I heartily recommend the essay. Summarizing Mr. Davis is a little difficult, not entirely because of the subtlety of his arguments, but also because of the surprising eclecticism of his sources. He draws not only from the Usual Suspects in Barfield studies; Eliot, Auden, Steiner, the German Naturphilosophen, but also Karl Marx and William Blake.
The connection with Karl Marx struck me as being interesting. Marx was, after all, a Romantic at heart, and the Romantic concept of the Eternal Return was deeply embedded into his narrative. However, it was the mention of William Blake that most ignited my imagination. Blake was present at the birth of a particular sort of Imperial consciousness, that of the regnant Whig classes in Great Britain. There appears to have been a kind of energy which was liberated by the disposal of the Catholic, medieval-minded James Stuart, which energy manifested itself in both the Scientific and Commercial revolutions of the 18th Century, and the establishment of the Whig Empire.
That Empire, with a very few modifications, is the very same Urizenic regime currently in power, which, in Blake’s poetic vision, was a metaphor what was occuring as a result of the Commercial and Industrial Revolutions; the dilution of risk through the use of joint stock corporations, the commoditization of labor in the “dark Satanic mills”. Artisianry, whereby a particular suit of clothes was made for a particular man, was sacrificed for the mass production of abstract “clothes” for abstract “men”.
It is not to lament the “world that once was”, but rather to show how a particular consciousness engenders a particular state of affairs in the so-called “material world”, that world which is characterized by the words “politics” and “economics”. In this sense, essence precedes existence; the Interior is anterior to the Exterior, nothing emerges in the technosphere which did not previously exist in the imagination, but a particularly focused kind of imagination.
The Church is not the interior of the Empire, the Empire is the material expression of the Church. Man was created to live and move and have his being in this Empire/Church which was intended to mediate the life [energies?] of the Blessed Trinity to the whole of Creation.
Charles Williams saw, no, felt this acutely, and called it the “Web of Exchange”, “Co-inherence”, or simply “the City”, and hinted that it was intended to encompass the entirety of Creation. Indeed, we see that one of the gravest problems that we are facing is an ecological crisis, whereby the Web of Empire, that portion of the Web of Exchange which organizes the energies of men, is returning material to the Web of Physical Nature, that portion of the Web of Exchange whose interchanges and sacrifices we describe as chemical reactions, in a condition unusable by it. What men call “the economy” has its inputs from this other, more elementary Web, and its impact upon this Web is considerable, but the terms of Exchange have not hitherto been charitable.
The changes we desperately need at this juncture will have to come from a change in Church. There are a lot of conflicting voices out there, and most of them are clamoring for a preservation of the status quo, with which voices I certainly sympathize, because it is comfortable for me.
But I don’t know whether that will be a option for us very much longer. As our Lord put it
A woman when she is in travail hath sorrow, because her hour is come: but as soon as she is delivered of the child, she remembereth no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world.
It’ s always like that; we’re comfortable, and we begin to feel constriction and the pressure, until suddenly light and cold burst in on us, and we are thrust into a larger world.
There tend to be two kinds of apparent heretics in the Church. You have those like Origen, Tertullian who push right up to the boundaries of orthodoxy or who even step over it, and you have those who have an insight that is so close to the reverse-singularity, white-hole-that-is-orthodoxy that it appears heretical to everybody else. I put St. Dionysius the Areopagite into this second category.
Right now, i think the Christian intellectual world is weighing and measuring what to do with Owen Barfield. Is he another peripheral, not-quite-orthodox figure who may be interesting and provocative, but who will never make any significant changes in the Church’s DNA? Or did he Get It in a way that just about no other writer in the 20th century did?
What I find most provocative about Barfield is the way he deals with evolution. Now, in case you’ve been asleep for the past 175 years, the triumph of Darwinian evolutionary materialism in the Academy has neatly divided Christendom into “modernist” and “fundamentalist” camps, and how they love to go at each other. On the other side of the Atlantic, neither branch has fared very well, and Christianity is, in the immortal words of Cool Hand Luke, “as dead as shit, but he’s too dumb to know it”. On this side, the modernist and the fundamentalist branches have each taken turns at being the canonical representative of Christianity to North American society. It took North Americans 75 years to get sick of modernist Christianity, but the fundamentalist branch seems to have outlasted its welcome in about half the time. If polls of church-raised teens and twenties tell us anything, it tells us that Britain is our future, and that weekly churchgoing will soon fall into single digits.
Now, “modernist” and “fundamentalist” Christianity split apart at the very fissure point introduced by Darwin – is man the product of impersonal forces working by chance and necessity or is he the crowning achievement of a Great Artificer who constructed Everything We See in pretty much the same way a watchmaker in a shop constructs a watch, albeit with infinitely greater resources and with much greater attention to detail?
As I have said before, I think that is the wrong question, and I don’t think there is a right answer for it. As it turns out I have never believed in Creation the way the bible story books picture it – a big hand coming out of the sky and all the animals and plants issuing forth from it in a mighty stream. And I have never quite bought entirely into the modern myth – you know, where the tiny Australopithecus mother is soothing her baby to sleep in the purple twilight of the African savanna. All of Plato, and Aristotle, and Jesus, and Dante, and Marx, and Lao-Tze are there in seminis in her guttural cooings awaiting only the right set of tumblers to fall into place by blind chance.
Now, I just finished reading the first three chapters of Barfield’s Unancestral Voice , and my brain is on fire. In this short expanse of prose, Barfield turns Darwin on his head in a reverse manner to the way that Marx supposedly turned Hegel on his head. There was no inchoate, unreasoning, unKnowing process that willy-nilly resulted in man’s rational and linguistic capacities. His single phrase –
The interior is anterior
liberated me to see what he had been saying all along. The “unfree wisdom” was what nature had all along. All of it, Plato, Aristotle, Jefferson, Einstein, was there, somewhere, encoded into the warp and woof of Creation, but it wasn’t free. It wasn’t yet self aware. And it wasn’t the result of material processes. And at the center of it was the Incarnation.
Suddenly, into my mind unbidden came the image of Adam “naming” the animals, except that they didn’t look like they did now. They came as motile undifferentiated arrangements of protoplasm, kind of like what we imagine stem cells to be, and as Adam sang the incantations over them, the tiger grew long of tooth and claw, the hare long of ear and hind leg, the hound keen of snout, and the hawk keen of eye and swift of wing. This Barfield calls “original participation”, before man was aware of any schism between himself and the exterior world. Then came the Fall, and the long painful process of individuation whereby man grew more and more of himself as a subject apart from an objective nature, reaching its apex in the modern physicist’s awareness that the ultimate object of analysis is likely to be of zero mass and infinite velocity. In other words, it doesn’t exist at all.
Here is where Barfield inserts the Incarnation. At a pivotal point in St. John’s gospel, “Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God”, binds himself with a towel and washes his disciples’ feet, instituting the Eucharistic supper. In this way, Christ attaches strong elastic bands to our nature, running pell-mell towards individuation and atomization, towards non-existence, and brings it back to what Barfield calls “final participation”, yet chastened, humbled, and ready for service now rather than exploitation.
Phew – there you have it. For some reason it would not have made such an impact on me if I hadn’t just finished reading Archimandrite Sophrony’s life of St. Silhouan, especially what he said about the Saint being that towards which nature intended, all of Creation rejoicing to become a saint in the saint – the air he breathes rejoicing to be expired in prayer, the wheat rejoicing to nourish his sinews, the very birds of the air rejoicing to be observed by him.
Maybe you can see now why I don’t want to surrender Barfield to the New Agers, who have made much more commerce with his ideas than have Christians. Not only is he a good point of contact, but I don’t think he properly belongs to any group who doesn’t put Christ as defined at Nicea and Chalcedon at the center.
I have to apologize for subjecting the readers of this blog to two rambling and practically incoherent essays on “epistemology” and Owen Barfield without taking the time to read much of what Barfield actually had to say.
Barfield is not easy reading. It takes effort to follow his arguments and even more effort to decipher where he wants you to go with what he is giving you. Fortunately, I started with a book of his that covers very familiar territory: Owen Barfield on CS Lewis is a collection of essays and addresses, written or delivered at various times after Lewis’ death, in which Barfield remembers and comments on the thought and writings of his intimate friend, CS Lewis.
What struck me deeply about the book was the profound affection Barfield felt for his absent friend. Although the period of their deepest communion was a brief two years while they were both still undergraduates, the two of them were fortunate in being able to continue their friendship for the remainder of their lives. In addition, their friendship appears to have been one of those which Lewis himself described in The Four Loves; one in which the friendship is enriched rather than diminished by the inclusion of other friends. Charles Williams, J.R.R . Tolkien, Walter Hooper, Barfield’s fellow Steinerite A.C. Harwood, Joy Davidson, and the phelgmatic Mrs. Moore, with whom Lewis conducted a maybe-not-so-platonic affair for the majority of his adult life, all make their way into the narrative and are all remembered by Barfield with great fondness.
The book is as much about Barfield’s thought as it is about Lewis. The best essay in the collection, “Either:Or: Coleridge, Lewis, and Romantic Theology” is also the densest and most impenetrable. Only twice have I had the unsettling experience of reading something that I was certain would tie up all the loose ends I have flapping around in my mind and present me with a Unified Field Theory of God, Life, Logic, Language, Imagination, Knowledge and Everything. Both times I have been following the thread of the writer’s argument with increasing excitement, saying “amen” under my breath to everything he has to say, when suddenly the writer sprouts wings and the argument flies into the Empyrean leaving me quite behind. I plod along through pages of material I cannot begin to assimilate until I come through to the other side, where the writer descends once again to my level of understanding. However, I find the world and everything in it completely changed as a result of something that occurred in that upper storey to which I, alas, still have no access.
The first time was while reading Zen and The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. The second was while reading the essay I mentioned above. Interestingly, both works dealt with something akin to what Barfield says that Coleridge called “polarity”. When two concepts are logically opposed, they cannot both be right any more than two physical objects can occupy the same space. However, when two concepts are in polar opposition, each one necessarily generates the other and is transformed into it. Barfield states that the proper faculty for the apprehension of this is not so much the logical, critical faculties of the intellect but rather the imagination. Here we run into problems. The imagination is suspect in our day and age since it is routinely relegated to the realm of the non-existent or the false.
You can see this the most clearly in the modern (not post-Modern) attitude towards the traditional Lives of the Saints among most Protestants and their fellow travelers for whom whatever could have been recorded by a time-traveler with a video camcorder is considered true and everything else is imaginary; that is to say – false, illusionary, leading to deception. Of course, these same Protestants take it very hard when you approach the Bible itself with the same attitude. You are either told that if you refuse to hear the voice of God speaking in the Bible, you are not likely to consider the truth if it comes to you from another source (presuppostional apologetics), or you are buried in a avalanche of minutae about Darius the Mede or ingenious arguments about alternative dates for the regencies of Hebrew kings (evidential apologetics).
Remember my earlier discussion of Francis Schaeffer and Malcolm Muggeridge? Schaeffer is a firm believer in Christianity as the great historical religion. I take this to mean that Schaeffer believed with all of his heart that if he had been a time-traveler with a camcorder he would have captured a woman, a snake, and an apple. To be very fair to Schaeffer, I believe this myself and unapologetically, but I am getting very close to the opinion that it is the wrong question to be asking. For example, if someone had been present with a tape recorder at the time recorded by John 12:28,29 , would he have recorded the voice of God the Father, the voice of an angel, or a simple thunderclap?
I think that what Barfield is saying is that imagination is as active a component in establishing the truth of a thing, especially the truth of a person, as is what Carlyle referred to as “imperial analysis”. To illustrate what I mean, go and see Father Stephen’s embedded video of Saint Nikolai Velimirovich, where the saint, at the end of the video, is portrayed in a series of photographs as an aging man, then finally, as an icon. Now an icon is a product of the Church’s contemplation of that saint. Barfield, I believe, would call it an exercise of the Church’s imagination, as if, when the man who can be caught on video and photograph perishes, he is meant to be translated into legend.
Optimism has been in short supply around here recently. There are no end of things to worry yourself sick about; Peak Oil, water depletion, Global Warming, the emergence of new and exotic diseases and resistant forms of old ones. The list goes on and on. We don’t know what the carrying capacity is of this Earth, and the idea of finding out, as we have in the past, by trial and error, doesn’t appeal to me.
For the majority of my adult life, I believed that the Rapture would be God’s provision against all of this. If you’ve been living under a rock since the 1970s, “the Rapture” refers to a belief that is all but universal among Evangelical Christians that the world will continue to get worse and worse until Jesus decides that he’s had enough and takes the really real good Christians to Heaven while He cleans the clock of the snuff-dippers, gamblers, whore-mongers, cynics, smart-assed news reporters, haughty secular humanists and anyone else who never Accepted Jesus Christ as their Personal Savior.
For obvious reasons, this idea that Jesus will give us a brand new shiny Earth to play with after we have used up the old one has a strong appeal to Americans. However, I don’t know where people are getting the idea that Jesus is going to come and rescue them so they can drive their minivans right on up to the Pearly Gates. Everything I see in the Bible seems to indicate He’s gonna be hot under the collar. Nevertheless, my disavowal of the Rapture when I left Evangelicalism for Orthodoxy was considered one of the principal signs of my apostasy. I was glad to leave the Rapture behind me; I always considered it an irresponsible doctrine, but I hadn’t factored in the comfort value. It’s getting pretty dark down here, and I wasn’t so sure I wanted to continue without an evacuation plan.
When I think about the situation in which we find ourselves these days, I visualize a large mass of people moving down a corridor where the walls are slowly converging. At first there is plenty of room and the mass of people are moving freely, but as the corridor becomes narrower and narrower, the people collide with each other more frequently. They experience each other as “being in the way”, as obstructions. The stronger gravitate towards the middle and the weaker are pushed to the sides. Eventually, there is room for only a few to pass through, and the conflict has become constant and endemic. No one seems to notice that the bodies are starting to pile up and have become in themselves an obstacle to further progress.
I am reminded of the voice of the Scriptures: A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So it is with our lives; we are floating along peacefully, the centers of our own little universes, when suddenly we are thrust against our wills into a narrow, constricting place. There is pain, then light, then cold. We don’t like it, and we open our tiny mouths and complain.
In order to survive the next two hundred years, we are going to need Jesus. It is not that we need to follow Jesus’ teachings more closely, or that we have to convince everybody that they need to believe some kind of ideology centered on Jesus. What we need is Jesus Himself – His divine/human personality with the divinity that He shares with His Father and the humanity which He shares with us through his Mother. Now, what puzzles me is that the pagans and the New Agers seem to be grasping something like this in their insensible way, but official Christendom seems pretty clueless. This is where Rapture fantasies come from, this confusion about Jesus’ agenda.
I wouldn’t wake up in the middle of the night with panic attacks if Yeshua Ben Miryam was, say, the Secretary-General of the United Nations with full executive powers. I could sleep peacefully knowing a grownup was in charge. But Jesus left. And to make matters worse, He left on purpose. Nevertheless I tell you the truth; It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you..
It is expedient, He says. And just when we needed Him so badly. But what did He leave behind? “A Book, a Doctrine”, say the classic Protestants, although they are scarce on the ground these days. “If we have continuity with this Doctrine, we are fulfilling the agenda of Jesus” “A Church”, say the Roman Catholics. “If we are members of this community, and in obedience to its leaders, we are fulfilling the agenda of Jesus.” But He said He would send the Comforter, the Spirit. But there are so many spirits abroad these days….
Now, Owen Barfield didn’t accept baptism in the Church of England until later in life, and he didn’t “come to Jesus”, as did many of us, because he felt ashamed of his whoring, drunkenness, or violent temper. According to something I read on a stray afternoon in a University labrary about a year or so ago, and I will dig up the reference if anybody needs it, Barfield decided to become a Christian because he noticed that certain elements entered the common life of humanity after the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. These elements, furthermore, were qualitatively different from the psychical composition of humanity prior to the career of Christ and could not be explained as either a recombination or a development of earlier components. They were the evidence of a new kind of consciousness, a new kind of man. There were to be no more blood-gods, no more Great Mothers.
To be continued…
The above illustration is from that most excellent journal, Touchstone, and I have “borrowed” it from an essay by David Justice which was published there some time ago. The two gentlemen, since gone to their respective reward, are Malcolm Muggeridge and Francis Schaeffer, and both of them embody a different stance towards Christianity and her truth-claims.
The article is fascinating , and should be read in full. For the purposes of this post, though, let us just say that Schaeffer defended Christianity because he saw it as true, whereas Muggeridge defended it because it mattered. Indeed, reading through Muggeridge’s Christian writings, you come away with the idea that it doesn’t matter to him whether any of the events recorded on the pages of Scripture ever actually happened in the sense that, had you been present with a camcorder, you could have recorded it.
That was the central issue of the modernist/fundamentalist debate that raged on the Continent in the early 19th century, in England in the late 19th century, and in America in the early 20th century. The question was deceptively simple – “Is the Bible true, or not?” “Of course!”, the fundamentalists scream. “Of course not!”, equally empatically, reply the Modernists. To be honest, the Pyrrhic “victory” of the Fundamentalists, or their heirs, has been due more to the unwillingness of the grandchildren of the Modernists to remain in Modernist churches rather than a retaking of the levers of culture occupied by the Protestant Hegemony prior to the conflict.
To Owen Barfield, the whole debate suffered from a false assumption; that there was a continuity between the world as perceived by the Biblical writers and that perceived by the modern consciousness. “In the standard history of ideas, an ancient Greek and a postmodern American have very different ideas about the world, but both perceive the [same] world the same way – with the understanding that our ideas, informed by modern science, are closer to the truth. There’s no difference between the consciousness of the ancient Greek and ours, only between the concepts ‘inside’ it. When we open our eyes, we see the same world, the same rocks, seas, and meadows. It’s just that we have better ideas about it.”
For Barfield, nothing could have been further from the truth. Not only has our understanding of things changes, but out very perception of them has as well. “The kind of world ancient man saw – and our ancestors continued to see until fairly recent times – Barfield believes, was one in which human consciousness ‘participated’. At that stage of the evolution of consciousness, the distinction between ‘self’ and ‘the world’ was not as rigid as it is today. What Mueller misunderstood as metaphoric was early man’s ability to see the “inside” of things, just as we now are aware of our own ‘inside’-our minds.”